Risk Factor: Persuading a first-time young offender to say sorry to his victim

Case notes

PRACTITIONER: Pete Wallis is a senior practitioner with Oxfordshire Youth Offending Service

FIELD: Young Offenders

LOCATION Oxfordshire

CLIENT: Adam*, 17, is a first-time offender

Adam had been drinking with friends when he assaulted another boy. Adam is now on a Referral Order after pleading guilty at this first-time appearance in court.

The victim is clear that he wants a meeting with Adam as part of the restorative process. Adam feels he has been punished enough already and is reluctant to face his victim. However, the victim has the right to attend Adam’s panel meeting.

risk factor There are risks involved if Adam meets his victim. If the encounter goes badly, one or both boys may feel the session has done more harm than good.

outcome With careful management, all participants were fully prepared for the meeting, thereby minimising any risks. Adam and his victim were both able to leave feeling they had put the unfortunate incident behind them.

*Not his real name.

Learning to say sorry

Referral orders are a key component of youth offending services’ efforts to reduce youth crime, writes Mark Drinkwater. Pete Wallis, a senior practitioner at Oxfordshire Council, works with many such cases. Adam* was referred to him after pleading guilty in court to a first-time offence of assault.

Adam had been drinking with friends when he got into an argument and assaulted another boy, who spent three days in hospital with a broken nose.

Wallis says Adam’s parents, like many others, had a “rosy-eyed” view of their son. “The offenders’ parents had the shock of their lives because the assault was treated as grievous bodily harm and the court had the option of custody,” he says.

With referral orders, the victim has the right to attend a panel meeting to face their offender, even if the latter isn’t keen. Adam and his family were suspicious about this and were initially reluctant to participate.

Wallis says that, restorative meetings do not always happen when there is reluctance on the part of one of the would-be participants, but in this case the victim and his mother were “very clear that they wished to meet and resolve the issue, partly to explain the huge impact the offence had had on them”.

Wallis undertook a thorough risk analysis. He shared his assessment with his line manager, confident that the meeting would have a positive outcome.

“We wouldn’t normally force the issue if the offender isn’t keen because, if they are unwilling, the meetings tend to go badly wrong,” Wallis says. “These are not easy meetings for anyone involved. It takes a great deal of courage from those participating.”

Preparing for difficult meetings can also require two or three separate pre-meetings with the victim and with the offender to “eliminate surprises”.

At the restorative meeting, the two boys met, along with both sets of parents present. Wallis facilitated the session confident that both the victim and offender were prepared and aware of the ground rules that had been negotiated.

The focus of the meeting was on feelings, thoughts and choices made, rather than what happened. This was because the “facts” were unlikely to be agreed by both parties.

In his account, Adam admitted he felt threatened at the time of the incident. The victim gave his version of events and admitted being drunk and verbally aggressive, but added that he didn’t deserve to be assaulted. He also talked about the negative impact of being in hospital for three days.

Next, the parents spoke. A poignant moment came when both mothers expressed similar feelings about being affected as “victims” of the incident.

At one point, Adam appeared to backtrack, minimising his part in the incident. But this prompted the victim to assert himself as he felt he was owed an apology. The confident request was enough to encourage Adam to say sorry, and the boys shook hands.

After the meeting, Adam and his family acknowledged their initial reluctance to participate, but said the meeting had been valuable in helping them move forward.

For Wallis, the case illustrates the power of restorative meetings in allowing people to reconcile their differences and help put the past behind them.

Weighing up the risks

Arguments for taking the risk

Assessment undertaken: A formal risk assessment was undertaken.

Victim’s positive reaction: The victim was clear that he wanted to participate in the restorative meeting.

Thorough preparation to minimise risk: The practitioner had many years’ experience working with similar cases. Although the process sounds risky, thorough preparation was undertaken with all those involved to minimise the risks of something unexpected happening.

A chance to move forward: Restorative meetings provide the victim and offender with the chance to discuss their feelings about the incident and enable them to move forward.

Arguments against taking the risk

What if meeting went badly? There was a risk that either the victim or the offender might feel worse if the restorative meeting went badly.

Deviation from agreed ground-rules: With so many family members attending there is an increased risk that one of the participants will deviate from the pre-agreed ground rules.

Flawed assessment may cause hostility: If the assessment is flawed, there may be an unexpectedly hostile atmosphere at the meeting that thwarts the restorative process.

Independent comment

by Dean Woodward, interim assistant director at Lambeth Specialist Youth Services

Direct mediation is without doubt the hardest task in the options available under the restorative justice umbrella. It is a definitive skill that can test the most accomplished practitioner. As with this case, most young offenders do not want to participate in direct reparation. Credit to the victim for wanting to attend the referral order panel as many victims of violence are too scared.

The obvious benefit of a successful piece of work here would be that if these two young men or their friends were ever to encounter each other again, the threat of a further altercation is now all but eliminated.

The personal apology and shaking of hands should represent both parties now being able to put this matter behind them. This would be even more valuable if there were a rival gang dynamic involved.

Good preliminary work is essential when victims are going to meet a young offender. Here, Wallis successfully managed expectations, established boundaries of conversation, and anticipated and rehearsed scenarios to enable the meeting to have the positive outcome.

Although the victim has rights, this must be balanced against the duty of care and it is vital to know when direct contact is not viable.

This article is published in the 30 April issue of Community Care magazine under the heading A sorry state of affairs

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